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Is ISIS Really a Growing Threat in India?

By Gaurav Vivek Bhatnagar

Since the September 2011 Delhi high court blast that claimed 15 lives and left nearly 80 injured, no major Indian city has witnessed a major terrorist strike. With the country’s neighbours not having grown friendlier, and growing unemployment and influence of social media providing a fertile ground for easy recruitment, credit is due to the intelligence agencies for preventing strikes.

In this regard, both the Manmohan Singh-led UPA government and the Narendra Modi-led NDA government have achieved great success. When the National Investigation Agency recently announced that it detected an ‘ISIS-inspired module’ and arrested 10 people from Uttar Pradesh and Delhi who were planning a series of explosions, it evoked mixed reaction.

There was relief that major strikes have been prevented. Delhi was a target of serial transistor blasts during 1980s and over 30 IED blasts during 1997-1998. It also witnessed several high intensity explosions at places like Lajpat Nagar, Sarojini Nagar, Connaught Place, KarolBagh and outside Delhi high court. These resulted in huge loss of life and property.

At the same time, for many of these explosions, people from the minorities were caught but later acquitted by courts for lack of evidence. In some cases, the courts even held that they had been implicated. In 2015, the Jamia Teachers-Solidarity Association (JTSA) came out with one such report.

It is in this background that the press conference organised by NIA to announce the arrests and a subsequent one addressed by Union minister ArunJaitley were seen as attempts to show the members of the minority community in poor light.

‘Sutli’ bombs, hydraulic pipes amuse the net

Those wary of the Centre’s religion play were also drawn by the images of the seizures allegedly made by the NIA. Many of them, including relatives and friends of those arrested, pointed to the hydraulic pipes that are fitted in tractors, and were shown to be mortar launchers. They also scoffed at the seizure of green ‘sutli’ bombs that are burst during festivals.

While the NIA’s finds became a matter of ridicule on social media, there is no denying that locally sourced material can be used to put together an explosive or a launching device.

This aspect has also been highlighted by KabirTaneja, associate fellow at the Observer Research Foundation and author of The ISIS Phenomenon: South Asia & Beyond. Through a series of tweets, he discussed the NIA’s reported seizures and their relevance.

Dwelling on the arrest of the ‘pro-ISIS group’, Taneja first discussed the picture of the said ‘recovered weapons’. “Barring the local made guns, bullets and print outs of ISIS imagery…the two things that have caught people’s attention is the “rocket launcher” and general firecrackers (green ones) that one can buy off the shelf in and around Diwali,” he wrote.

He then reasoned that the do-it-yourself (DIY) system of making weapons was a method that the ISIS worked hard on. “Having to ‘live off the land’, so to speak, they had to improvise a lot. Designs for these improvisations were posted online over the years, easily accessible to anyone.”

The ‘rocket launcher’, he wrote, was “basically a mortar launcher, made for crude home-made mortars. This was a commonly developed weapon not just by ISIS, but multiple warring groups in Iraq and Syria using parts from cars, trucks etc.”

He also posted a picture from Syria to illustrate how exhaust pipes are used for making such launchers.
The powder from firecrackers, could be, used to make crude DIY nail bombs. See below of an example, again from either Iraq or Syria. Duct tape, explosive materials, steel case and nails. It could work, could not work. But its a type of crude weapon.

Moving to the arrest and ISIS case itself, he cautioned that “if we allow public discourse to not differentiate an ‘ISIS group’ from a bunch of pro-ISIS looneys, we play into the hands of ISIS propaganda.” He also stated that the NIA press conference was “counter-productive” and took a dig at the low level of discourse that followed on TV channels.

Earlier, in a paper titled “Uncovering the influence of ISIS in India”, Taneja chronicled its rise in the early 2000s and supposed demise in 2017. He noted how “India is often highlighted as an ‘anomaly’ as far as the influence of ISIS is concerned” since, despite having the third largest population of Muslims in the world, “the number of ISIS cases that have been, or are currently being probed by investigative agencies (in India) remains just above 100, with liberal estimates hovering around the 200 to 300 range.”

Through the paper, Taneja also cautioned that “the number of pro-ISIS cases being relatively negligible, the Indian political and social environment remains conducive for Islamist activities with multiple social and political pressure points.”

Going through the 112 cases in which individuals were allegedly influenced by ISIS, the paper said the number of Indians who have or may have joined ISIS or travelled to Syria or Iraq from within West Asia or other foreign points remains a grey area with little to no data available.

Taneja’s paper also indicated how, in “almost 95 percent of all cases in India”, the indoctrination was done through “hordes of general propaganda that includes text documents, videos of executions, speeches by prominent clerics, well-produced glossy magazines such as Dabiq (later renamed Rumiya after the town of Dabiq fell away from the caliphate’s control), and other such paraphernalia.”

It also noted how “the most common apparatus for contact and outreach between most cases has been Facebook … [and that the] concept of lone-wolf attacks was discussed….” These are the kinds of attacks which are increasingly been witnessed in Europe and other developed countries.